The Best Monitor Setup to Reduce Eye Fatigue and Distraction

For years I’ve struggled to find a monitor setup that allows me to be the most productive, without causing eye fatigue or eye strain. Here’s my best answer so far:

I now use a vertical monitor with high pixel density. It helps reduce eye fatigue, clicks, and distraction.




The Right Monitor Setup

The picture above is a screenshot of my monitor’s display. Below is one small portion of it. Look carefully at the New York Times article and compare it to what you see on your own monitor, here.

You’ll see that on my monitor:

  • There’s no clutter from the web site or the browser.
  • The background color is similar to the FilterJoe site, which is easier on the eyes than bright white.
  • It’s easy to read!

Furthermore, this 21.5″ 1920×1080 monitor is 34 inches from my eyes, so that I can’t distinguish individual pixels. The enlarged text appears very crisp from this distance, and this means easier reading and less eye fatigue.

To achieve this setup, you need to:

  1. Use a vertical monitor. For added flexibility, use a monitor that can pivot between vertical and horizontal positions.
  2. Sit far from the monitor and increase screen font size to increase effective resolution. See “Reduce Eye Fatigue” section below for how to calculate this distance for your monitor.
  3. When reading or writing a long article, use “fullscreen mode” which can be invoked with the F11 key on most browsers for Windows or Linux users.
  4. For cluttered web sites use tools like Readability or Readable to rid a web page of everything except the main content.

For more details on all of the above, keep reading.

A Widescreen Monitor is Not the Best Setup

Reasons people use a widescreen monitor include:

  • Entertainment such as video, pictures, games
  • Working at two related tasks, such as writing and researching
  • Multitasking unrelated activities

The first two uses seem perfectly reasonable, but multitasking unrelated activities is a productivity killer for most people.

Can a widescreen monitor be used effectively for the first two uses? Yes. Many people do. And it may be ideal in certain homes where the display is used for both entertainment and light work. But if you’re trying to work without distraction for hours at a time, you may find that a widescreen monitor will lead you down the dark path of multitasking unrelated activities.

I tried for two years to use a 24”, 1920×1200, widescreen monitor effectively at my office, because I often find myself flipping back and forth between writing and researching. I failed. With the combination of a widescreen monitor and a tabbed browser, I too often succumbed to multitasking unrelated activities.

I had other issues with the wide screen. The short monitor height required too many clicks to scroll through long articles. I couldn’t use fullscreen mode because text stretched super wide. And though tools like Readability or Readable could be used, much of the screen space was wasted with wide margins.

I did distracted myself with many experiments to try to improve the situation, including various utilities or plug-ins designed to manage large screens or block distraction. It turns out that most content is meant to be displayed vertically, and this is assumed in computer software and operating systems. I found myself constantly battling this vertical display assumption, and often losing. So after two years of reduced productivity I gave up on widescreen monitors.

Now I have the best of both worlds. I have a widescreen monitor, but it can pivot into a vertical position. It is in vertical position over 95% of the time.

Reduce Eye Fatigue

Steve Jobs claims that you can’t distinguish individual pixels on a device with more than 300 PPI such as the iPhone 4 or iPod Touch 4g, which both have a 326 pixels per inch (PPI) “Retina Display.” He’s right. That is likely the main reason my eyes get less tired with this device than any other LCD display I’ve used.

This display is so good that the iPod Touch 4g makes for a great e-reader. So I began to wonder: could I get a display this good for reading on my computer?

The answer is yes . . . sort of. You can’t get consumer grade monitors with such high pixel density, but you can simulate it. Here’s why, and how:

Have you ever noticed how a massive HDTV looks great 6 or more feet away, but not so great close up? You can see the individual pixels on a 46” HDTV if you’re 3 feet away, but not if you’re 6 feet away. The same principal applies to an LCD display. Move it twice as far away, and you’ll only be able to distinguish half the detail.

The distance (in inches) at which people cannot distinguish individual pixels can be calculated with this simple formula (see this Discover article for details). Note that PPI is Pixels per Inch:

3438/PPI = number of inches from eyes to display

Example 1: iPod Touch Retina Display 326PPI

3438/326 = 10.55 inches from eyes to display

Example 2: My 21.5”, 1920 x 1080 monitor 103PPI

3438/103 = 33.4 inches from eyes to display

See Wikipedia for the PPI of many common devices.

In other words, you cannot distinguish individual pixels on a 326 PPI Retina Display that is more than 10.55 inches away from your eyes unless you have better than 20/20 vision. The same applies to my 103 PPI monitor at a distance of greater than 33.4 inches.

So doesn’t putting a monitor so far away make it difficult to read tiny type? Yes, but that’s not a problem. I just increase font sizes. To do this in a browser, type control+ on Windows, and command+ on Macs. Or you can use the Readability or Readable bookmarklet with a large font selected.

Enlarged text nearly three feet from my eyes is very easy to read. Another subtle benefit is that page elements such as tabs, menus, and status bars do not get larger. They look tiny relative to the enlarged text, so they’re less noticeable and less distracting.

Note that by enlarging your web pages or documents, you do end up with less information on the screen. I find that I don’t usually need 1920×1080 pixels worth of information on a screen at one time. But when I do, I can simply move the screen closer to my eyes. Yes I lose the benefits of having the equivalent of a Retina Display, but the trade-off is sometimes worthwhile, particularly with large spreadsheets.

Reduce Clicks

Read a web page with more than a few hundred words, and you’ll need to advance the page using a mouse click or your keyboard’s “page down” key. If your work involves reading hours per day, you may do this hundreds of times per day.

On a vertical monitor, you have much more vertical space than on a horizontally positioned widescreen monitor. So you’ll need fewer clicks to scroll through the vertically arranged content, and you’ll be able to see more of it at a time.

For example, my Dell 21.5″, 1920×1080 monitor (HDTV resolution) can pivot between vertical and horizontal positions. The vertical position means 1920 pixels of vertical space devoted to a web page, while a horizontally positioned screen means only 1080 pixels of vertical space

You could theoretically get the same amount of text on the screen by filling up the entire monitor with your browser, but that stretches the text very wide. It is very difficult to read text which has 150 characters per line. Various studies show that people can read fastest at somewhere between 60 and 95 characters per line, which is what I get by positioning my monitor vertically, 34 inches away, with enlarged text.

Reduce Distraction

The advantages of working using the cloud are numerous, but endless web distractions can lead to wasted time and feelings of information overload. I’ve discussed tools for reducing distraction for both writing and reading on the web. These tools work well on vertical monitors but poorly on widescreen monitors.

For example, the simplest distraction blocker is to simply put your browser into fullscreen mode by pressing the F11 key. Try it on a widescreen monitor and you’ll see your text stretches so wide that there’s more than 150 characters per line. This is difficult to read.

Fullscreen mode works as intended on a vertical monitor. You eliminate menus, toolbars, address bars, bookmark bars, and status bars. You also get more vertical space so you’ll display more of what you’re reading, leading to fewer clicks to read a long article.

My favorite distraction blockers these days are tools like Readability or Readable. Readability is built in to the Safari browser and it can be added to Firefox or Chrome with plugins. You can also use Readability or Readable bookmarklets on any browser. These tools do work on widescreen monitors as you can specify the text width, leaving wide margins. But using these tools on a vertical monitor is better because much more text is on the screen, which means less clicks when reading a long article.

But What if You Really Need to See More than One Window?

There are times when it truly is helpful to have two Windows displayed simultaneously. You may be writing while frequently consulting one or more sources. Perhaps your work requires you to monitor numbers, graphs, or images from several different points of view. So what setup works best for this?

Two choices allow you to use vertical monitors.

  1. Get a second monitor. You’ll need to make sure that your computer has the graphics card and software to support it and that you have enough desk space. If you need to spend many hours per day with two or more windows displayed, this is the best solution. You can always turn off one of the monitors if it’s a distraction.
  2. Get a widescreen monitor that has the ability to pivot. Keep it in vertical position most of the time. Rotate it horizontally only when having more than one window open at a time will really help your productivity.

So What Monitor Models do I Recommend?

If you’re convinced you want to use a monitor setup like mine, you can do it with any monitor that can be arranged in a vertical position.

Inexpensive 19″, 1280×1024 monitors will do. But with 86 PPI, these monitors need to be 40” away to achieve the equivalent resolution of a Retina Display that is 10.55 inches from your eyes. Worse, you’ll need to enlarge the text in order to read it and then won’t be able to see much more information than you can on an iPod Touch. More likely is that you won’t want to position your 1280×1024 monitor so far away, so you’ll notice the individual pixels.

Luckily, high quality 1920×1080 monitors can be purchased for $150 to $400 these days. The diagonal length of monitors with this resolution ranges from 21.5” to 26”, but the larger sizes of these monitors usually cannot pivot. Furthermore, the bigger the monitor is, the farther you’ll need to place it away from your eyes.

So I recommend getting a monitor with the following characteristics:

  • Can pivot (vertical or horizontal)
  • Is smaller than 24” diagonally
  • Has a resolution of either 1920×1080 or 1920×1200

There’s nothing wrong with a resolution higher than 1920×1200, but prices are much higher and you’ll need a powerful graphics card on your computer.

I recommend the Dell UltraSharp U2211H 21.5″ monitor that I’ve been using for the past two months. Clicking on this link takes you to Amazon, which usually sells this monitor for a lower price than Dell.

UPDATE (11/12/14, 7/25/16): Though I still happily use my U2211H, it has been replaced by updated and rebranded Dell models since this post was written. More importantly, the matte anti-glare coating has been improved to eliminate the “graininess” some people noticed on the U2211H. If I were buying today, I would buy:

Dell P2214H IPS 22-Inch Screen LED-Lit Monitor

or more the even more recent:

Dell Professional P2217H 21.5″ Screen LED-Lit Monitor

The comments below apply equally to the P2214H and P2217H.

The 21.5” diagonal screen size was the smallest I could find on a 1920×1080 monitor. It needs to be only 33.4” from my eyes (to achieve the same effect as a Retina Display at 10.55 inches), as opposed to the 37.5” required for a 24” display. Closer is better so I don’t have to lean forward as far when I need to look at something small.

Other notes about the U2211H:

  • Its IPS LCD display allows for much wider viewing angles than traditional, cheaper LCD displays.
  • This model has dimmer backlighting than most other models. You’ll need to set brightness and contrast higher than you may be used to.
  • A modestly more expensive 23″ diagonal version of this model exists: Dell UltraSharp U2311H UPDATE: Dell P2314H or Dell P2317H

There are plenty of other models to choose from, as you can see if you search Amazon for the word “pivot” in the monitor section:

Amazon listing of LCD monitors which pivot

If you’re planning to also use your monitor to watch video, you might want to go with a larger and/or brighter model than my Dell UltraSharp.

Final Comments on Vertical vs. Widescreen Monitors

Having failed to make good use of a widescreen monitor after two years of trying, I’ve obviously given up on them in the office. But many people use them for home entertainment purposes. And some people are very productive with them. Maybe you’re one of them, and you’d like to share about it below.

I’d love to hear about useful alternatives and so would my readers. So please share your comments below about your own experience with monitors or any other related words of wisdom you may have. Thanks!

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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